Friday, December 28, 2018

All Hail Queen Part II

My top favorite Queen songs, #5 to 1. 

5.  Innuendo

Innuendo is another example of the musical glory that is Queen. It’s a song I can listen to over and over (and have). It's a dark song with grand themes at a personal level. The song, the title track from the band's 1991 album, was written by Taylor and Mercury, inspired by Led Zepplin's Kashmir which shows through in the majority of the song. The rhythm is relentless, the song starting with a drum roll that leads into a suspenseful sting making you wonder where it's headed. The opening lyrics speak of the sun, desert sand, crashing waves, and mountains crumbling into the plain. Through it all, "We'll keep on trying/tread the fine line." Later the song speaks of "Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion/through the eons, and on and on." 

The middle part is pure Mercury, shifting gears and tempo to a more positive song. There's a flamenco guitar solo repeated later using electric guitars, the solos book ending a bridge filled with elaborate orchestration. In it, Mercury insists that, "You can be anything you want to be, just turn yourself into anything you think you could ever be." All it takes is for you to "Surrender your ego."

History sometimes leads us to read meaning into lyrics that perhaps weren't there when the song was written. The album was recorded from March 1989 to November 1990. Toward the end of that run, Mercury was most definitely dealing with his mortality. A man who had so often been able to be anything he wanted to be, was slowly losing that magic. The lyrics are almost taunting in that regard. This could be why the bridge ends with the urging, "Surrender your ego. Be free, be free, to yourself." Accept what can't be changed.

Then the song dives right back into the relentless bolero, slapping us back to reality as Mercury demands,

"If there’s a god or any kind of justice under the sky/If there’s a point, if there’s a reason to live or die/ If there’s an answer to the questions we feel bound to ask/Show yourself, destroy our fears, release your mask." The very thing a dying man might demand. Whether or not this played a part in the creation of the song, as with The Show Must Go On, it lends to the lyrics and Mercury's performance a whole other dimension. Hope then acceptance. There are things we cannot change, but we also can't help but try. Just as the sun hangs in the sky, this is in our nature.

4. Spread Your Wings

The first Queen album I bought was "News of the World" which features two of their most iconic songs We  Will Rock You and We Are the Champions. Both brilliant anthems. But it also features one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard in Spread Your Wings. Written by bassist John Deacon, it's a story song about a young man named Sammy being encouraged to leave his job mopping up the Emerald Bar to pursue his dreams. Fear, complacency, whatever makes it difficult for him to spread his wings and fly away. It starts out gently with Mercury's piano, as we're pulled into the song and Sammy's dilemma. Eventually it builds to a rocking crescendo as the narrator pleads with the young to take the risk while his boss insists he should be happy sweeping up the Emerald Bar. It was a song I listened to over and over (along with All Dead, All Dead and My Melancholy Blues). Maybe it resonated with me because even at 13 years old I related to Sammy's plight. I knew I should spread my wings but was too afraid to try.

3. Bohemian Rhapsody

Considered by many to be Queen’s magnum opus, even today it remains an audacious song: A song longer than three minutes at the time was not a favorite among radio execs. Were it not for their success, it’s unlikely that the Beatles could have persuaded radio to play Hey Jude at 7:11 in length (some stations did actually edit it for length). On top of its length of 5:55, Bohemian Rhapsody boasted a mix of ballad, and straight up hard rock along with…an operatic section of all things. And the song is about some guy named Scaramouch who everyone wants to do the Fandango, not to mention the whole cry out for Galileo. What’s that all about?

And yet they pulled it off. In a big way. Recorded in 1975, the production challenged studio equipment of the day and took three weeks to record. The lyrics can be taken either metaphorically (alluding to situations going on in Mercury’s life) or literally, a story song in three parts, as a libertine anti-hero regrets the choices he made and begs for his life and his soul.

Perhaps the true genius of Bohemian Rhapsody is that despite its musical intricacy, despite its obscure references and unclear narrative, everyone feels comfortable enough with the song to have a go at it. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the scene in the 1992 movie "Wayne’s World" where Wayne, Garth and their two friends are driving around in a car and the song comes on. According to Mike Myers who played Wayne, this was based on experiences with his brothers and friends. When the song came on, everyone had a “Galileo” to sing and there was trouble if someone stepped on another’s “Galileo.” Apparently producer Lorne Michaels originally wanted a Guns N' Roses song, but Meyers, for whom the song was a masterpiece, stuck to his guns and the song stayed. To much better effect. The joy of that scene in the movie is that everyone has done the same thing. We all had a whack at it while driving around alone or with friends. In fact the movie helped the song become popular again nearly twenty years after its release.

Released in October, 1975 it was a daring work on many fronts that paid off. Decades later the song is still being praised for its legacy. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004 and was appears in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It even made history recently when it hit Billboard's Hot 100 a third time after the release of the 2018 movie of the same name (the first time of course was when it was released and the second was after the release "Wayne's World" which helped it reach #2 on the chart). Reaching #9, it seems the movie Bohemian Rhapsody has given the song another opportunity to be heard by a new generation.

2. Killer Queen

I was ten years old when Killer Queen sauntered onto American radio, encouraged on by a few crisp finger snaps and driven forward by the bass. This song was my introduction to Queen. I had no idea what a “Moet et Chandon” was or a “Geisha Minah” or for that matter a good portion of the lyrics Freddie Mercury was singing. I didn’t care. The song was so crisp and clean and perfectly produced that I had to hang on for the ride and was grateful I did. Starting out with a piano, other instruments entered the song like special guests at a cocktail party which is kind of how this whole song felt: Like you were listening to a conversation at a high class cocktail party about one of those women who are too cool to settle down. Holly Golightly still going strong in the '70s. It was sophisticated and scandalous but by the middle of the song was able to get a bit raunchy too. Okay, at ten years old I had no clue who Holly Golightly was and perhaps the subtext wasn’t that clear, but I knew there was something going on in that song (Mercury would later say that the song was about "a high class call girl" but also that "...classy people can be whores as well"). And it had a guitar lick that hooked you and would not let go. Musically you wanted to hear what they’d throw in next.

The single was released in October, 1974 it was featured on their album “Sheer Heart Attack” and became their first international hit.

While in some respects it's a lower-key song than others that would follow, it established Queen as a musical force to be reckoned with thanks in part to the quality of the craftsmanship. It was a perfect example of the elegance that the group brought to rock music and helped pave the way for a song like Bohemian Rhapsody to be accepted by the audience. Over forty years later, it still sounds fresh, sophisticated and slightly scandalous.

1. The Show Must Go On

While some would put Bohemian Rhapsody or even Killer Queen in the top spot, for me The Show Must Go On tops them both. Not only for the music and production values but for the poignancy of the song. A man, a showman, very near death, insisting none the less that the show must go on. What must it have been like for Mercury, the reality of his own mortality looming over him, to sing those words (or for  that matter the band to watch him sing them)? And yet he does so, giving every piece of himself to the performance. There’s an audacity there that only Freddie Mercury could pull off. The song, released as a single on Oct. 14, 1991, is very much about the state of Freddie Mercury's health at the time of recording. Written primarily by May with some input from Mercury, the lyrics are those of a man refusing to give up the ghost but realizing it’s a losing battle. Mercury did not want pity, which was one reason he kept his diagnosis of HIV/AIDS a secret and tried his best to carry on with the show, wearing more and more makeup to cover the ravages of the illness he would succumb to only a month after the song’s release. The lyric, “Inside my heart is breaking/my makeup may be flaking/but my smile still stays on” becomes even more striking for that fact.

Brian May was uncertain whether or not Mercury had the strength to sing what is a vocally strenuous song to perform even for Mercury in perfect health. According to May in a later interview, however, “He said, ‘I’ll fucking do it darling’—vodka down—and went in and killed, completely lacerated that vocal.” The consummate showman, Mercury knew the importance of that song to his legacy and was not about to miss out on that last bravura performance.

I can’t imagine how difficult it was for May to broach that topic of failing voice with Mercury as well as for the whole band to hear the final playback of that song, his voice so strong and determined, knowing the struggle Mercury was facing would soon be over. In many ways the song must have been cathartic as they said in music what they couldn’t say with words.

The video released for The Show Must Go On features only a few glimpses of Mercury in his declining year, concentrating instead on clips from his career up to that point. The editing is brilliant, the clips a perfect accompaniment to the song. In many respects this makes it even more heartbreaking to see the scenes of past glory accompanied by that song. I seem to remember seeing this video after hearing news of Mercury’s death on Nov. 24, 1991, and it brought me to tears to watch. Still chokes me up a bit.

When well done, music can cause a gut reaction. The beauty of Queen is that all their songs have that epic quality to them. Listening to the Show Must Go On brings on a euphoria over the entire band’s performance, and a sadness that, despite the insistence that the show must go on, it simply can’t.

Honorable Mention: All Dead, All Dead

This is an honorable mention. A song I was recently reminded of when I came across the video Queen put up for it on YouTube several months ago.

This is the another song on News of the World that I couldn't get enough of. It's a hauntingly beautiful song about a childhood friend that had passed away. I only recently discovered that Brian May wrote the song about the death of his childhood cat. As a cat lover myself who had her own childhood friend (a sweet orange tabby named Starsky), this made the song even more poignant for me. The lyrics are sheer poetry and May's voice, combined with Mercury's delicate piano playing reveals the sense of loss and grief that even the loss of a pet can produce. There is a version of the song with Freddie Mercury singing, but I think May's voice is better suited to the gentle tone of the song. Someone described it as a warmer sound.

So there you have my top ten Queen songs. Feel free to let me know what yours are. 

Dedicated to Starsky, my childhood friend.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

All Hail Queen!

The movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" has been out for some time and sparking an interest in the music of Queen decades after the death of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Rightfully so. It’s some of the best music by far of any decade and deserves to be celebrated. I’ve enjoyed their music since I was a kid and my admiration for them has only grown as I have.

So I thought, considering the success of the movie, I’d offer 10 of my favorite Queen songs that I wouldn’t mind being lost with on a desert island. The list might change over time (I’m terrible about lists. I never want to pin myself down), the songs may not be on the list of others, but the beauty of Queen is that all of their songs have some element that makes them notable. I’ll post a Part I and Part II with five songs each.

Let me know what some of your favorite Queen songs are.

In this post, we'll go from number 10 to 6 starting with:

10.  Seven Seas of Rhye

This was the first hit single for Queen hitting #10 on the UK charts when it was released in 1974. It's a rollicking song about a mythical place made up by Mercury and his sister, Kashmira when they were children. It closed out their first album "Queen" as a musical sketch but was elaborated on for their second album, "Queen II." Most noticeably, this is the song they performed when they were booked as a last minute replacement on the TV show Top of the Pops and helped give credence to their being named in January, 1974 as "third most promising act" by Sounds, a weekly music publication. Driven heavily by Mercury's piano and May's guitar, the lyrics are something out of Jabberwocky (or perhaps Game of Thrones). A fitting glimpse of things to come from this band and just really fun to listen to.

9.  Play the Game

I have a particular fondness for this song possibly because I used it in a montage on a video that friends and I filmed far too many years ago. From the opening airplane landing whistle you're drawn into the wisdom of love via Freddie Mercury who counsels taking a relaxed stance  when it comes to matters of the heart. "It's so easy...all you have to is play the game."

The message is casual. Love can be a minefield or it can be a game and it's so much easier when one views it as the latter. "This is your life/don't play hard to get/it's a free world/all you have to is fall in love." You're not a prisoner of love, you're a participant in the game. Remembering that might just help you win the game.

Interestingly as casual as the lyrics and Freddie's vocal styling is, the music is a bit more aggressive, illustrating the tension that love can produce whether considered a war or a game. Occasionally May's guitar blasts in to remind us no matter how you look at it, it's never quite as easy as Mercury tries to make it sound.

8.  Radio Ga Ga

This title may have made people tilt their heads a bit when the song came out, but the song itself is infectious. Check out the Live Aid performance and you'll see how infectious it can be. Written by Roger Taylor after he heard his young son describe a bad song as "radio ca ca", Taylor had originally intended it for a solo album, but the band sensed a hit and worked the Queen magic on it. It's a love song to the idea of radio written at a time when videos were force feeding people images of songs that at one time they could only imagine. (Ironically it has one of the most visually interesting videos using scenes from the 1927 film Metropolis that fit the song perfectly). It was a especially popular at live shows since the audience could take part by clapping their hands in unison to the beat of the chorus and became a highlight of their history making performance at Wembley Stadium during Live Aid. By the time they recorded the album "The Game," Queen had embraced the use of synthesizers and used them quite effectively. "Radio Ga Ga," appearing on the album "The Works," is ripe with them to fine affect. When Mercury sings in the chorus, "Radio, someone still loves you!" he sings it almost like a call to battle to save an old friend.

7.  Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy

This is another of those sophisticated songs, the male answer to "Killer Queen" only rather than a high class call girl, we have a charming gigolo at the ready to please you. Sung in the first person, the narrator is a graduate of the "good old fashioned school of lover boy" where he no doubt excelled not only in the art of seduction, but the art of simple companionship as well. He can do whatever your heart desires, more than likely for a price, which is never discussed in the song. That would be uncouth and ruin the romance. Instead it's "Say the word your wish is my command."

Sounding like it would be right at home in a musical, the song with it's touch of ragtime, highlights the musical playfulness the band was willing to take part in so often. The performances, especially the drums and bass, are as clever as the lyrics. With those glorious harmonies that Queen perfected, it's a song I can hear and never tire of, and one that shows the phenomenal creative range the band was capable of.

6.  Don’t Stop Me Now

This song is the musical definition of euphoria (whether sexual or otherwise)! It's pretty obvious what is making Mercury so excited as he races his way passionately through the song. After all, he describes himself as "a sex machine ready to reload, like an atom bomb about to explode." He's also unconcerned with who helps him in this endeavor since he wants to "make a supersonic man" and later a "supersonic woman" out of someone.

But even on a nonsexual level, this is a hell of an anthem. Voted in a Rolling Stone reader's poll as Queen's third top song, it achieves what it sets out to do: Rev you up. Unconcerned with subtlety, it's pure abandon, whatever abandon that may be. Freddie is enjoying life and he's inviting everyone along for the ride. The more the merrier. If you need a booster shot after a long day at work, this is the shot for you.

Next post I'll feature my top 5 Queen songs. 

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Pity

While rumbling around the Internet, I clicked onto a piece which first appeared Dec. 20, 2016 on Redbook’s site. In it, the author reveals a philosophy that is mind-boggling in its self-absorption.

In the piece, titled “Please Stop Posting Your Christmas Dinner Photos,” Perri O. Blumberg, a former editor at Reader’s Digest and a full time writer, opines that the photos posted on social media of people enjoying the holidays with their families are making her…well sad. No, seriously.

She writes, "For people with families like mine {it was just her and her dad}, the excessive stream of family dinner photos that inundates my feeds during the holiday season just feels exhausting and insensitive.”

Yes, the act of someone posting a photo of an event in which they felt great joy seems "exhausting and insensitive" to this young woman who apparently is unfamiliar with the notion of taking joy in other people's joy.

How does that work exactly?

Is the wife of Chris Hemsworth insensitive for posting photos of her life with him because there are women around the world who would love to be in her shoes? Any grandparent putting up posts about their grandchildren are being terribly hurtful to those people who would love to have grandchildren but don't. Have you taken a trip to Europe? Well the photos you've been posting of your travels are only upsetting those who haven't had a chance to get there.  

To a degree I understand where Blumberg as an only child is coming from. Society stresses spending time with family during the holidays and if your family is small or if you're now on your own, you might yearn for the familial warmth that ads would have us believe go hand in hand with holidays. But don't let ads deceive you.

For example, Blumberg might consider me fortunate since I came from your typical nuclear family. Two parents and four kids. Unfortunately, this typical nuclear family was a mess and the holidays only heightened the adventure. With two alcoholics in a miserable marriage steering the borderline car crash that was the Enright family, the kids woke up, or came home from school, or came home from the houses of friends at night never knowing what to expect. Would mom be drunk and looking for a fight? Would dad be drunk and sleeping it off in bed? Would both of them be drunk and planning to use you as a tool in their matrimonial war? Was this the year Mom kicked Dad out of the house? Was this the year Dad kicked Mom out of the house? Do you know how soul shattering the sound of a pull tab being opened on a can of beer can be at 10 a.m. because you know what the rest of the day will be like from then on?

For some reason Dad's drinking didn't bother me as much as Mom's, possibly because I wasn't around him as much. He was usually off in a bar somewhere or at work. My mom, normally sweet and loving, could be mean and self-pitying about her troubled marriage when she was liquored up. It was heartbreaking to see that transformation in someone you loved so much. Still, the alcoholism of both parents played a part in the darkness of the family in general and cast a pall over the magic of the holidays in particular.

One of my sharpest memories was the night my dad, drunk in bed, told me to remind him of something in the morning. I have no clue what it was decades later, but it was apparently important to him then and he didn't want me to reveal it to Mom. Of course when I walked into the living room, Mom insisted I tell her what he told me. When I didn't, she pounded around the kitchen, going on about how much of a traitor I was, before going to bed, where she eventually threw up. I helped her into my bed (the marriage had deteriorated to the point where my parents no longer slept in the same room) and I took her sheets downstairs to wash. That night, I slept on the sofa, staring at the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree not feeling overly joyful that year.

I reveal that not to take part in a pity pissing contest but to illustrate my next point. I should hate the holidays for instances like that. I don't. December is my favorite time of year possibly because I know how wonderful it can be if treated right. It wasn't the holidays or the joy of others brutalizing me emotionally, it was my family. Eventually I learned that, difficult as it might be to obtain, I could have some control over holiday circumstances. If the parents started acting up, I could leave.

But even in the thick of it, held hostage by my underage status, I don't remember being upset when seeing photos or hearing stories of pleasant family holidays. Sure, when I was younger there was some resentment that I couldn't experience those types of holidays. Then I grew up. Then I realized that in in some situations, not all, but some, life is what you make it. The holidays are no exception.

What I find especially troubling about Blumberg’s piece is its childish need to convince others to temper their holiday joy because of the author’s FOMO. (That’s textese for “fear of missing out”). Apparently that’s a thing.

Those Facebook photos posted of Mary and her mom baking at the holidays might be snapshots of the only time Mary gets to spend with her mom throughout the year and she wants to share her joy. The spate of posts put up by Sam who loves his family so much that he just can't stop talking about how great it was to be with them--why should that negatively affect me? Presumably, since we are friends on FB, one would think I should take a level of happiness in the fact that one of my friends is so happy. Sarah tweeting about the ski trip she and her dad does that plus or minus my life? (unless it's the plus of a smile put on my face at seeing them because I know how strained the relationship was between the two when she was young and I’m glad they worked it out).

Being the woman I am now, I would love the opportunity to square things with my father. I would love to suggest a baking night with my mom and throw the pictures all over social media. I would love to just hang out with my older brother who always intimidated me when I was younger but who I'm sure I could have a lot of fun with being the person I am now, and both of us out of the misery of childhood.

I can't. They're dead. And I never had the chance to alter the course that my family was on up to that point. That's the way it is. Of course I regret not having happier memories of holidays as a child. But how can I, in good conscience, begrudge someone else taking joy in the success I never got to have? 

Blumberg, however, has a different view of things:

"And though I'm sure nobody means to be malicious, it can feel hurtful. Think about it: If one of your close friends just called things off with her fiancé, would she be the one you gloat to over happy hour drinks over ring shopping with your partner? Probably not. That's what perusing social media feeds feels like over the holidays for someone with little or no family."

First of all, that's not what it feels like for everyone who has little or no family. As someone who has frequently been alone on the holidays, I can somehow go on Facebook and not feel tormented at the sight of the celebratory photos people post. In fact this whole idea that Blumberg is presenting, that somehow happy holiday social media posts are partly to blame for someone’s seasonal depression, would never have crossed my mind.

But returning to her fiancé analogy, I guess the first question I would have is: What is the statute of limitations on that sort of situation? If your friend called it quits with her fiancé, how long do you have to wait before you share the news that you've just gotten engaged? Three months? One year? A decade? Or will you have to pussy-foot around the issue for the duration of what doesn't seem like a very solid friendship to avoid upsetting a person who should have been able to deal with it and move on at that point?

The fiancé analogy says more about someone like Blumberg than it does about people sharing such news.

For Blumberg, people sharing holiday experiences on social media are not doing it because they feel so happy that they can't help but share. In Blumberg’s mind, they’re gloating. They’re rubbing it into the faces of those who aren’t experiencing such happiness.

Blumberg goes on to write, "I'm not asking for a pity party here."

Yet the whole piece is a heaping helping of "pity-me" trying to create an issue where really there shouldn't be one. And it’s equally unfortunate that Redbook decided to give this sort of attitude a national forum.

I can understand her occasionally feeling the misties over not having the sort of holidays she apparently thinks she should have had, though I do ask, outside of hiding out at "semi-private yoga classes on official holidays" as she states she does, what has she done to make her holidays more magical than they are? Since time with my family often felt like being held in captivity, once he was an adult, my older brother spent the holidays flittering around visiting family and friends. One year he dressed up as Santa for the children of a friend and just continued on to other houses dressed like that. He'd stop in, give some gifts, swap some stories, then move on to the next visit. Plenty of experiences could be had and photos perfect for holiday posts could be taken during such a time.

To escape the misery of Thanksgiving weekend, for many years I spent time with friends at a big sci fi convention. I still have great memories of those times.

How about hosting a holiday party and inviting family and friends over? Family doesn't need to be blood. Sometimes we work with people so many hours a day for so long that they might as well be family. Happy memories can be made from this.

Blumberg could pull herself out of the semi-private yoga class and volunteer at a shelter, or volunteer at a food bank, or handle the phones at a suicide prevention center where she can help others understand that you don’t have to crawl into the fetal position at the holidays because you’re alone. I have a Facebook friend who posts updates about his trip to the local homeless shelter where he and his wife volunteer to spend the holidays. Does it take a lot of effort not only physically but intellectually and emotionally to bring himself to do this? Hell yeah. But he knows that there are people who aren’t lucky enough to be spending the holidays with family or even having a self-involved pity-party at a “semi-private yoga class.” Spending a day with them can give both the homeless and my friend a boost they don’t feel the rest of the year. And some of the people he’s met there have become like family.

If charity isn’t her thing, then Blumberg could encourage her fellow family-holiday-deprived yoga classmates to leave the studio that night and actually do something more festive. Or do something festive at the studio. The possibilities exist. Someone just has to stop scrolling through posts and make the effort.

Blumberg states that, "Between Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas, I urge myself to deactivate Facebook, I delete Instagram from my phone, and I don't even dream about checking Snapchat unless I want a video montage of reminders that I'm missing out...on everything."

Aside from my desire to suggest that she might want to get more practice spending less time on social media and more time in the real world, as someone who's been in this situation most of her life even when she was with her family, the best advice I can offer Blumberg or anyone who is in her frame of mind, is to be proactive about their misery. If they feel they’re missing out on "everything," that's on them, not the people posting on social media. Those celebrations, whether familial or friendly; whether big parties or little dinners; whether on the holiday or a few days before, whether for one day or for a week, didn't just happen. Someone had to arrange them. Invitations had to be made, schedules had to be considered, supplies obtained, decorations put up. Effort made.

Life is not a two-year-old’s birthday party and you the two-year-old. Anyone planning on pulling themselves off social media to avoid other people’s holiday memories, as Blumberg plans to do, could use the time they aren't constantly staring at their phone effectively and plan to do something to create their own memories.

“This Christmas,” writes Blumberg, “I beg you to think about your audience before you post that ninth family mannequin challenge. Imagine sitting alone on a yoga studio bench or a local watering hole scrolling through a stream of a big family happiness you’ve never known on your Christmas…eve, day, and the morning after.”

Blumberg bemoans the “added layer of FOMO-induced sadness” such holiday posts on social media can bring about. Well, Perri, if you fear missing out on things, then don’t sit alone. Get off the yoga bench and create your own holiday magic. If you spend the holiday crying and not really trying, then you really only have yourself to blame. And people shouldn’t have to send their seasonal joy into radio silence because you need a cruise director to lead you through life.

Does that sound harsh? Life can sometimes be harsh. Growing up an only child when you yearn for me, can be harsh. Having some childhood memories that are unfulfilling (or some that can be down right PTSD inducing) can be harsh. And there is a lot of harshness in life that we can do nothing about. But for what we can change, it's foolish to be crying over the sight of someone else's holiday memories when you could be out making your own.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Baby It’s Cold Outside: Date-Rape or Female Empowerment?

This is my favorite version of a song that has come under a great deal of fire the past few years.

The latest holiday trend seems to be trying to convince the world that the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” shouldn’t be considered a holiday standard, but rather a song about date-rape. I’ve heard people say that some of the lyrics come off as “a little rapey.”

Cause that’s how you want to describe an act in which someone is forced to have sex against their will: “Rapey.”

Anyway, those who are trying so hard to vilify this song as a date-rape (or at least high pressured sex) song are missing another possibility of what's going on in the dynamic between the two voices within the song. From a different perspective the song is actually quite empowering for the woman.

First a little historical context is important; something many of its critics are ignoring. 

The song was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 specifically so that he and his wife could perform it at parties. Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for parties to feature songs and dances performed by guests of the hosts or the hosts themselves. Originally it was Frank singing it to his wife, Lynn Garland who, presumably, didn’t consider it date-rapey in any way and gleefully took part in it (though to be fair, she was performing it with her husband). The couple would often perform the call and response song as a last number when it was time to close down the party.

The song's history is easily obtainable through a simple Google search, and many of the detractors pride themselves on being "tech-savvy" so it's interesting that they never seemed to try to do a Google search to help put into historical context the song they're vilifying. But then that would mean they would have to be open to interpretation of the lyrics beyond their own. 

Back to that history: Five years later Loesser sold the song to MGM and it was used in the film “Neptune’s Daughter” where it was actually sung by four people in a scene. First it was sung by Ricardo Montalban to Esther Williams who, throughout the scene seems quite capable of taking care of herself. In fact while her response to his entreaties shows uncertainty, there are moments where she quite clearly telegraphs that the offer to stay is an attractive one for her.

Interestingly, the other half of the scene takes place in a different hotel room and involves Betty Garrett taking on the Montalban role even more aggressively as she sings the pursuer’s lyrics to Red Skelton, who seems even more uncertain than Williams that it’s a good idea to stay.

If this film (or for that matter the song) was celebrating a woman being pressured into sex it was going about it the wrong way.

The fact is that this is a light song about the dance of flirtation that couples engage in when debating how far they want to take their relationship. The couple could be a man and a woman, two men,

two women, heck you could probably adapt it for any number of situations. 

It’s about the people involved, not their gender. There is a difference between pursuit and predation and that’s important to remember.

But sticking with the theme of a romance between a guy and gal, does he want her to stay? Yes. Because that’s what guys wanted back then (and what most would want now).

Does she want to stay? Yes. Because women also weren’t immune to such desires, then or now.

She’s not screaming to leave. She’s debating whether or not to stay, agreeing to “well maybe just a half a drink more” or “maybe just a cigarette more”; looking for excuses to buy time so that she can mull the situation over. That’s not what someone does who doesn’t want to be there.

“Yes,” the date-rape conspiracy theorists reply, “but she asks, ‘Say, what’s in this drink?’ because obviously he slipped her some sort of date-rape drug in an effort to force her to stay.”

Or it could just be a woman asking after the recipe of the drink at a time when cocktails, even at home, were the fashion. Or it could be her questioning her own desire to stay by assuming or perhaps hoping that it’s the alcohol of the drink causing that desire.

Why the debate though? If she really wants to stay, why would she need to be talked into it?

Because she’s working with something that the guy doesn’t have to worry about: The expectations of society. It’s hard to imagine in 2018 but at the time, a guy going around “sowing his wild oats” gained him a hearty slap on the back and an “atta boy!” Boys will be boys after all.

The Village Bride by Jean-Baptiste Greuze
A woman, however, had to worry about being pure and chaste until the day her dad gave her away to her husband (that’s, by the way, what that oh-so-cherished tradition of the father walking the bride down the aisle actually means. He’s handing her off like chattel, swathed in white to assure her new owner that she isn’t tainted in anyway).

Consider the woman’s part of the song. Right off the bat, she’s not worried about the act, she’s worried about the consequences. “My mother will start to worry/father will be pacing the floor.” She feels a need to scurry and yet concedes to, “maybe just a half a drink more.” Still, the second stanza begins with her fear of what the neighbors might think which leads to her to feel that she “ought to say no, no no” but should they find out, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.”

Now this is where I find the song a bit sad. Here we have a consenting adult woman who has to be so worried about what the neighbors might think if she gets home late, and if they start assuming why, that she feels she has to insist that she tried not to allow to happen an act she wants to engage in. And it’s not only the neighbors who will belittle her. Her own family will have something to say.

In the next stanza she’s concerned that her “sister will be suspicious” and her “brother will be there at the door” (apparently as the other male of the house, he had the right to be waiting at the door and expecting an explanation).

I certainly can’t imagine being in my mind 20s and having a late date become a scandal. Neither of my siblings would care whether I came in late and in fact my older brother probably wouldn’t be at the door because he himself was off partying, taking my younger brother, several years his junior, with him and allowing him to drink to the point of puking. And this was allowed by my parents to continue. Boys will be boys, after all. Meanwhile, in my late teens, I'm given a resounding "no" when I ask to spend the night at my friend's sister's house. I can only imagine mom feared we’d have guys over and didn’t believe that pizza and videos were all we planned. But even in the late '70s, that double standard applied. And while it might apply today to some degree and depending on the area, I don’t think it’s anywhere near what it was decades ago.

Imagine what it was like in the 1940s when a woman, no matter what her age or level of self-sufficiency, could see her reputation ruined simply because she came home past a certain hour even if she was guilty of nothing more than misreading the time. Even her maiden aunt, whose mind was “vicious”, would get in on the shaming (the word “maiden” I’m guessing, used because the aunt never did her womanly duty and married so she couldn’t possibly have anything better to do than to invent all sorts of sordid details about the time her niece came home late from a date).

So there is indeed a debate going on in this woman’s head but her concern seems to be more for what society will say about her than of what the man she’s attracted to will ask of her. With all this going through her mind she still considers staying by accepting, “maybe just a cigarette more,” even though in the next stanza she worries that, “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow/at least there’ll be plenty implied.”

Despite the possibilities for gossip, by the end of the song, while her decision may be a risky one, she finally agrees, “Okay fine, just another drink then.” We can draw our own conclusions upon what happened after that.

Rather than being a song about sexual predation, it’s a song about empowerment. By the end of the song, yes perhaps nagged a little by the man, but after great debate of her own, the woman decides she’s an adult and will not be ruled by societal expectations. She’s staying; what will be, will be.

That’s actually pretty progressive for the 1940s. It’s pretty progressive for the 1950s and '60s. And yet seven decades after the song was written, people want to go backwards and portray the woman in the song as some innocent lamb being led to sexual slaughter. That interpretation might say more about the interpreters, than the song.

Now as more and more radio stations decide not to play any version of this song (which is happening now unfortunately) more and more of those on the other side of the “PC” argument will opine that “social justice warriors are taking things too far!” “Oh no, I refuse to say Happy Holidays!” “They’re RUINING CHRISTMAS!!”

To a degree, they’re right (about taking things too far, not the "Happy Holidays" controversy). As I mentioned earlier, context is helpful when interpreting anything. Even if you want to make a case that this song is “date-rapey”, a case just as sound can be made that there’s more going on with the woman’s part than she’s being given credit for.

But let’s not forget something very important: Date-rape did and does occur. At one time the culture did encourage the sort of predation that the man in the song is being unfairly accused of. Again, men could sow their wild oats all they wanted, whether through seduction or force. The term “wolfish behavior” came from somewhere and that’s exactly the sort of behavior that was winked at back then. And a woman who actually didn’t ask for another drink, who did try to brave the storm to get away from unwanted advances, if she failed, might still find herself slandered by a society too quick to assume that the woman “led him on” or “didn’t fight hard enough.” That’s also a historical reality and an attitude that we are supposed to be evolving away from. 

It’s not a bad idea to examine the traditional. Sometimes when we don’t question, we run the risk of making sacred that which perhaps should be done away with. But when examining the traditional, I think an open mind is important and I don’t think that’s been the case with “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” I think those finding it guilty of glorifying sexual predation are way off the mark and because of this a fun little holiday standard might have less of a shot at withstanding the test of time. 

That would be a shame. Because than we wouldn't have fun duets like the one between Sigourney Weaver and Buster Poindexter. and believe me, if she didn't want to stay, Ripley wouldn't take shit from anyone. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018


A hundred years today an armistice signed between the Allies and Germany put an end to the Great War. We know it now as World War I but at the time, no one imagined there could ever be a second world war so they called it the Great War assuming such turmoil could never take place again. It's a fascinating war on a number of levels and one with a history that should be better taught at least in America (a country that was so removed from it geographically that we sat out most of it. Interesting, considering how many in this nation of immigrants had families that hailed from the countries involved).

When trying to dream up an origin for the main vampire in To Touch the Sun, I was inspired by F.W. Murnau, the director of "Nosferatu: Symphony of Horror" who found his own inspiration in the vampire tales told to him by locals while serving on the Eastern Front of  WW I. I decided that my protagonist, Narain Khan, would find his vampiric transformation after an attack by feral vampires on the field of "No Man's Land". Of course, like so many others, the war itself had already begun transforming him long before that.

The following is an excerpt from To Touch the Sun: Book 1 in The Chicago Vampire Series in which Narain tells his friend Dom how he came to be involved in the the Great War where he would meet his nemesis, Reg Jameson, who would plague him long after both should have been dead and buried.

      Dom studied him for a moment, noting the strain on his face from memories washing over him. “Rain, you never really talk much about the war.”
      Narain sighed, staring at the end table, his eyes acquiring a lost look. “What’s to say? The good guys won. It was a long time ago.”
      Dom said gently, “I’m thinking not all that long for you. At least not lately, with all these reminders cropping up.” He chuckled softly, admitting, “You know, when Sophie told me how…when you became…you know…”
      “Vampiric?” Narain said grinning with a playful menace.
      Dom grinned. “Yeah. Well, I did a little reading about World War I. Watched some documentaries. You know,” he hesitated, “that was some nasty shit, Rain. I mean, war is hell, but that one…it was like no one was prepared for it.”
      Narain stared at him, stunned by the accuracy of the statement. “No, no one was. Really. It was supposed to be over by Christmas, 1914. It lasted four years, involved half the world, and brought into fresh perspective just what complete bastards humans could be to each other.”
     “So, tell me about Blythe, then.” For a moment, he wasn’t sure if Narain would speak. Or if he would, Dom wasn’t sure if he would simply wave a hand and brush the topic off as he so often did with topics he preferred not to pursue.
     But he didn’t. Looking up at him with an almost resigned look, Narain sighed, allowing the memories to flow unheeded.
     The Great War. It would come to be known as World War I. During it, however, it was called “the war to end all wars” by people who never conceived the extent of mankind’s cruelty. For four years it sucked country after country into the horrific quagmire. Over 17 million people died. Men, women, children, death didn’t discriminate. Whether it was from the terrible new weapons like landmines or mustard gas, or simply starvation, casualties mounted and soldiers returned to their homes maimed physically or mentally. A select few left the war altered in a way unimaginable.
     Narain had no idea that Europe was so cold. He’d heard stories, of course. The Viceroy Hotel in Bengal where he had worked as assistant chef had many European visitors staying there and some of the friendlier ones would strike up conversations with the staff. They would tell stories of their various countries, inevitably comparing weather patterns for they were just as struck by India’s warmth as he would be by Europe’s cold.
     He had left India in September 1916, with a battalion of other soldiers, to fight for an empire that looked upon them more as inconveniences than citizens. Each had his reasons for going and all had tearful relatives seeing them off at the dock, after their few weeks of basic training were finished. Narain never realized just how difficult saying goodbye would be until he was holding his weeping mother in his arms, assuring her he’d be fine. Her comments on how handsome he looked in his uniform deteriorated into a list of dos and don’ts that were sobbed out.
     Zaheer, who could find rainbows on the cloudiest of days, hid his misgivings in the demand that their first meal upon Narain’s return be of French origin. The two brothers chatted warmly, Narain promising to bring back a special recipe and lightly warning his younger sibling to be good for their parents. A warning that he knew was unnecessary considering the boy’s gentle disposition.
     During this, Aziz had stood several feet away, taking it all in, his face unreadable. Coaxed over by his mother, he stood in front of Narain, his head downcast. To Narain’s surprise the young boy eventually wrapped his arms around his big brother’s waist and squeezed tightly, never making a sound. Before Narain could respond, however, Aziz released him and ran back to his original position, refusing to gaze any further upon the scene. Narain couldn’t help but notice, however, that the boy quickly wiped a tear from his cheek and he sent out a silent prayer that he would have the chance to build a better bond with his brother.
     The hardest goodbye was with Ujaali.
     Wiping tears from her eyes, all she said was, “But I don’t want you to go,” the flute-like voice now thick with fear.
     Narain crouched down and brushed back her hair. “I’ll be back.”
     Stubbornly she said, “No you won’t. You’ll leave us forever.”
    “I will return, I promise. And I’ll bring you something from one of those far away countries. Would you like that?”
    “Don’t go,” she insisted, falling into his arms.
He lifted her, hugging her tightly and humming.
    “You’re young now,” he told her. “One day you’ll understand. I will write you and you can write me. It will be like a game. And when I’m ready to come home, you can plan a big party for me. We’ll play all the games you like to play.”
     She nodded, her cheeks tear-stained, then kissed him on the cheek and held her arms out for her mother. Once in her mother’s embrace, she turned her head into the woman’s neck and sobbed.
     His sister’s grief weighed on Narain, heavier than anything he’d ever experienced and he made a silent vow to return to her no matter what.
     His father was next and Narain’s eyes grew misty again when they embraced. “Your sister has spoken for all of us,” his father said, his words hoarse. “Be good. Stay safe. And when your dreams are fulfilled come back to us.”
    “I will, Baba, I will.”
     His legs were leaden as he walked up the gang plank to board the ship that would take him so far from home. The voyage would take weeks and having never sailed before, the first week was spent wracked by nausea—much like the rest of the soldiers. The ship’s crew had fun with the sea sickness of their charges and once his queasiness had subsided, he recognized it as a form of camaraderie. He would discover later that such camaraderie would be in short supply once the Indian soldiers reached the trenches. They came from all over India, fighting for all sorts of reasons. Some out of patriotism to the crown, some to feed their families. Some like Narain, seeking adventure or opportunity.
     By the time he was comfortable on deck, the ship was very far out to sea. They were surrounded by nothing but water and sky and it left him feeling reflective and rather small in this alien environment. The only firm footing was to be found on a ship that swayed at the mercy of the ocean’s temperament. When the ocean grew irritable, it tortured them with incessant rocking and the ever present threat that one properly placed wave could sink them. The rain pelted, the sun baked, and the only deliverance from either was below deck where one rolled and swayed and tried to forget the fact that there was still so far to go before touching dry land.
     There was beauty in this solitude, though.
     Cloudless nights revealed jewels in the sky as stars shone their maps above them. During the day, every so often, a glance overboard would reveal pods of dolphins racing alongside the ship. The soldiers and crew would run to the sides and shout greetings to the creatures as they leapt out of the water, almost as if in response. Once, the ship came upon whales in the distance, and the size of their flukes as they slapped the water left even the ship’s crew speechless.
     The ship finally docked at Liverpool, where the soldiers joined up with another company, before they were ferried to France. Narain handed one of the sailors a packet of letters he had written to his family while on board ship, asking that the sailor see that they make it back to India. The sailor agreed.
     “Seems like the least I can do, mate,” the sailor said, glancing at the packet. “It’s a brave thing you chaps are doing. Besides, you can’t half cook. Were it not for your kitchen skills, I might have gone barmy on this run.”
     Narain smiled. The food on board had been one of the depressing aspects of the trip. Supplies were chosen not for luxury but for duration. He had offered his services to the captain partly for the sake of his fellow soldiers and partly for his own sanity. He hadn’t touched a pot in weeks and it was getting to him. So, he did what he could with what he had and the soldiers and crew were happy for the effort.
     “I do believe you have a future in this,” the captain had said appreciatively after calling him to his quarters one evening after dinner. After the captain’s inquiries, Narain explained his culinary hopes and desires. The captain nodded smiling.“Well, India’s loss will be Europe’s gain. Perhaps once this damned war is over, I might be of some assistance. Keep me in mind, old chap, should you find yourself in need.”
     Arriving in France, the company marched through the French countryside to the Western Front, where the Allies were bogged down in the trenches, in a campaign that seemed to have reached a permanent stalemate. Narain had to admit that, so far, he had been treated quite well by the British. A few on the ship’s crew had a bit of condescension tainting their manner, but nothing unbearable. And there was no overt prejudice from the French, who came to the dock to watch the disembarking of the newest soldiers to join the fray to save this country.
     I wonder if they’d be so considerate to us, if a war was not on,” Vivek asked as they joined the formation of soldiers preparing to march. Narain and Vivek Bandalar had struck up a friendship on board, growing quite close during the voyage. Vivek was from Nagpur and had enlisted to escape an engagement to a woman he could barely tolerate and who had little regard for him.
     “And what will you do when the war is over and you must return?” Narain had asked him.
     “Perhaps they will grow tired of waiting and marry her to someone else. Besides, who said I have to return? I can be an ex-patriot in Paris. And maybe once you are a chef, we can open a restaurant and allow Paris to taste what real food is like. Anyway, there’s always the chance that the decision will be made for me and I will head off into my next life.” He chuckled. “Knowing my luck, she will kill herself just to chase after me.”
     On board ship, they could joke about war, but marching through the French countryside toward the front, the realities came into sharp focus as they passed caravans of Allied dead and wounded on their way home. Those still breathing looked haunted, with hollow eyes and ashen skin. As they passed these convoys, everything seemed to go in slow motion for Narain. The horrible sights these men had witnessed were etched upon their sunken faces. They were alive and going home, but they were dead to that joy. Worn out. Used up.
     Eventually, Narain simply averted his eyes and concentrated on the road, praying that the war didn’t leave him as hopeless and as dead inside as these men now looked.
     Vivek helped keep his spirits up with an irreverent energy that Narain had no choice but to laugh at. He was glad that if he had to be in this cold land, he had a battalion of other Indians marching with him to ease some of the home sickness he was experiencing.
     The march to the Western Front took weeks. They marched down country roads, past cottages and farms, where children tending sheep would march along with them for short distances, cheering them on as they had cheered on so many other battalions that passed by.
     Occasionally, they marched through villages where people of the town hailed them, shouting in heavily accented English words of encouragement and the names of loved ones to look up once they were on the front.
    “Say ‘hello’ to my father.”
    “My brother’s over there. Please send him my love.”
     In one village, an old woman surged forward and pressed a letter into Narain’s hand. “Please, this is for my son,” she said, hurrying alongside the line. “I beg you, see that he gets it. God go with you all.”
     Wide eyed, all Narain could do was nod and continue the march as the woman fell back. He had learned a little French while at the Viceroy and was able to figure out what the woman was asking, but as he stared at the envelope, thoughts of his own family whirled around his mind. He knew it was unlikely but he could not help but hope that he could somehow fulfill this mother’s wish.
     In another town, a group of pretty young ladies stood behind a fence, shouting in French and waving at the men who seemed to perk up at the attention. “Namaste girls, namaste,” Vivek said, smiling wide and waving back. “We’re off to teach the Kaiser a lesson.” Then to Narain, he added,         “And perhaps on the way back we can teach the lovely ladies a lesson.”
     Narain blushed knowing his friend was all talk but surprised nonetheless.
     With a chuckle, he told Vivek, “You take care or they may not let you back into India.”
    The air of desperation became deeper, the further they marched into France. The French were fighting for their country and the years had worn them down. The closer the battalion got to the front, the more dour the atmosphere became. Miles from the front, they could hear the constant thump as the warring factions lobbed mortars at each other and even Vivek’s ever present grin hardened. Even from afar, they could spot the beating that the forest was taking. Trees that didn’t stand like burnt twigs, leafless and blackened by fire, were simply charred stumps blown into splinters. The ground between the two factions, what they’d learn to call “No Man’s Land,” was chewed up by mortar shells, which left great mounds of dirt and debris and deep muddy craters in their wake.
     And there were bodies in the field; Narain could see them. He would learn that they were the bodies of German soldiers, who had been mown down, when they tried to charge into the Allied trenches for a raid. The bodies stayed out there, rotting, for no one dared to go out and retrieve them.
     Then there were the trenches: The intricate system that snaked on deeply, far across the Western Front; furrowed wounds that became cities unto themselves. It took months to dig them out and shore them up, before fighting had even been considered. In the trench, British soldiers milled about, slogging through the ever present, ankle-deep water and trying to avoid the occasional strand of barbed wire that had fallen from its place along the lip of the trench, where it protected the trench’s inhabitants from night-time attacks by Germans raiders.
     “Life with my intended is looking better and better,” Vivek commented with a hollow tone.
     Men moved along the trenches like ants, some darting in and out of little chambers dug into the wall of dirt, where supplies and munitions were stored. Much further back in the trenches, there were even chambers where horses were kept. Other men sat on planks in little indentations, playing cards or checking equipment. Checking equipment, Narain would later learn, was often done more for busy work than concern for safety. Boredom, in fact, was the most tenacious foe for the trench soldier.
     As the Indian soldiers climbed down into the trench, the Germans released another barrage of mortar, one hitting nearby, spitting up the dirt which flew at the soldiers. Narain felt something whip into his cheek and swiping at it, he noted the dark blood staining his fingertips.
     “Not to worry, mate,” one of the British soldiers told him as they settled again. He inspected Narain’s face with a practical eye, and then smiled, patting his other cheek. “None too deep. You’ve just been baptised, that’s all.” He handed Narain a handkerchief saying, “Keep it. I have another.”
     Blinking, Narain smiled faintly and thanked him before following after the others.
     The Indian soldiers were spread along the trench for a mile. There were several officers, each in charge of a particular section of the trench and Narain, Vivek, and eight others were set somewhere in the middle. Narain was grateful that Vivek was in his unit. It would make the days go faster. He hoped. Narain and Vivek were directed to their section by a soldier who couldn’t have been more than twenty. As they slogged their way through the muck another mortar hit nearby, causing all to duck. One of the men answered with some pointless gunfire before everything was quiet again.
     Private Fred Blythe, their guide, affected a smile on his young open face, his pale-blue eyes friendly and honest. “Just remember to keep your head low, chaps. Usually, you’ll hear a whistle when a shell’s on the way, but you can’t be too sure.”
     Narain and Vivek looked at each other, shrugged, then continued to follow him to where two officers were intently playing cards. The pile of cash on the plank between them revealed the reason for the high degree of concentration.
     “Come now, Jameson,” said one, smoking a pipe and holding his cards in the relaxed manner of a man confident in his hand. “I think I’ve got you again.”
     The other, Captain Reginald Jameson, had a tightly wound energy as he debated how much he was willing to put in to see the other man’s hand. His brown hair was cut short back and sides, and his bearing had a carefully cultivated military air about it. “Luck turns, Danforth, just remember that.”
     Blythe halted in front of them, saluting and stamping his foot in military fashion, unwittingly splashing some of the muck on the legs of the men. Lieutenant Danforth remained sitting, but Jameson threw his cards down and burst to his feet. “What is wrong with you, Blythe?”
    Slightly oblivious, Blythe held his salute until Jameson returned it with a frustrated gesture. “Private Blythe reporting with new recruits.”
    “Oh good,” Danforth said, playing with his cards, “fresh meat.”
     Jameson took a look at the Indian soldiers and rolled his eyes, hands on hips. “Oh you must be joking.” Glaring at the new recruits he pointed at Blythe, “It’s not bad enough they’re sending over lower class yabbos like this, who wouldn’t know a military manoeuvre from a move in a tiddly winks tournament.” He sneered at the soldiers. “What do they think I can do with East Indian apes?”
     Narain felt his face burn at the insult, but he knew enough to remain silent. Jameson was a superior officer and rank had its privilege, as abused as that might be.
    “Steady on, Reg,” Danforth said with a grimace. “There’s no call for that. They are here to help us, after all. With no real benefit to their country.”
    “They’ll be hearing a lot worse if the bosch take over everything, which might just happen considering what we have to work with.”
    “Reg, one question before you attend to the new recruits,” Danforth said, looking up at him. “Are you in, or out?”
     With a quick movement, Jameson slammed money into the pot leading Danforth to reveal a truly spectacular hand of poker. Irritated, Jameson picked up then tossed his cards on the table, snapping, “It’s yours” before turning to military duty. Very well, Blythe, show them the ropes.”
Blythe saluted and as he was turning to leave, Jameson stuck a foot out, sending him into the muck at Narain’s feet.
     “Well, that will boost morale,” Danforth said in a blasé tone putting his money in his wallet.
    “That’s for muddying up my trousers,” Jameson told him. “Perhaps, you’ll show more care next time.”
     Try as he might, Narain could not keep the disgust from his eyes. Jameson focused on it immediately, intimidating Blythe to remain in the muck while he went nose to nose with Narain.
     “Do you have something you wish to say, Private?”
     Narain never blinked, never looked away. Rather, he bore his olive-brown eyes into Jameson’s blue and answered, “No, sir.”
     Picking up on the challenge, Jameson said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear that.”
    “No, sir, I don’t, sir,” Narain bellowed.
    Backing away, Jameson smiled. “I didn’t think so.” Looking down at the private in the muck, he asked, “Blythe, is there a reason you’re still down there?”
    “No, sir,” Blythe said, starting to get up.
    His eyes never leaving Jameson, Narain crouched down and took hold of Blythe’s arm helping him to his feet. That was it. The war had begun and while he was never one to instigate trouble, Narain could not restrain himself from firing this first shot. Jameson’s face darkened as he said, “Get them out of here.”
     As Blythe motioned for the soldiers to follow him, Vivek nudged Narain, impressed, whispering,      “I didn’t know you were tough.”
Narain kept his head low as he replied, “I’m not. I just hate bullies.”
     As the months went by, Narain could not help but remember the conversation he had with his father when the man found the enlistment papers. As his service wore on, he realized just how right his father had been. The insanity of this fool’s war was matched only by its cruelty. In his letters home, he made sure to omit details of the horror. He spoke of the scenery, the excitement of learning another language (the few words he picked up in French and German), the rare times the soldiers were relieved and were able to go into the nearby town for a few days, where they were able to bathe and perhaps eat something other than the rations offered in the trenches. Here, he befriended an old woman who allowed him the use of her kitchen, showing him some recipes popular in the countryside. As the other soldiers gravitated to the makeshift canteen where beer and wine were available while rations held out, he visited the old woman to soak up more of her Gallic culinary expertise and share with her a little of his knowledge.
     He wrote of the friendships he was forming with the soldiers he practically lived on top of. That was one of the benefits of the war. Bonds forged in war would never be broken. When one was homesick, he might look to the news sent to another soldier to help him through it. Narain knew who was engaged, who was divorcing, whose wife was expecting and whose parents were having a row with the next door neighbors over escaped dogs, or apples falling in yards or whatever news was fit to print. And they knew of his family and his home. When he showed Ujaali’s picture to Private Blythe, the man smiled fondly.
     “Oh, she’s a darlin’ isn’t she? I bet she misses her big brother.”
     Narain nodded glumly. “I fear she may.”
     “Not to worry. You’ll be home in no time. They’ve got to come to their senses soon.”
     Narain wrote his family much about Blythe, and Vivek and the many others he had befriended. But he couldn’t tell them everything. How could he describe the Germans dropping chlorine gas into the trenches, sending everyone running for their gas masks? Those unfortunate enough not to reach the masks in time were left contracting like insects, their exposed skin turning horrid shades of green, then blue. Water seeped into everything. Most times, the trenches had at least an inch of it on the ground, sometimes so much that it had to be bailed out. During heavy rains, one wondered if they would be flooded out completely. During winter it became a horrid slush, threatening the soldiers with frostbite. Dysentery was a frequent visitor, as were lice and vermin and the horrible trench foot.
     Narain had studied the art of cooking since he was a little boy and had watched his mother make naan with an infectious exuberance. He got a job at a family friend’s restaurant, then as line cook in the Viceroy hotel where he was complimented on his palette-pleasing experiments with styles until he was made assistant chef. Now, he was in a trench, calf deep in water, in a cold country that might not have any restaurants for him to train in, still standing after the war was finally over.
     The shell shock was the worst. Many of those men who couldn’t switch their focus, found themselves fixating on the sometimes incessant barrage of the mortar guns that the factions fired at each other. A section down the line was destroyed by a mortar that managed to hit its mark, sending body parts flying as wildly as the dirt and debris. Generally, though, it was an exercise in futility for both sides. Still, after a particularly nasty barrage, the thumping that shook the ground often invaded their sleep and left them haunted during the day. Narain was certain that Blythe was succumbing to shell shock, for the poor man seemed to be growing increasingly jittery, with or without bombs, as the months wore on. Of course, Jameson’s cruelty didn’t help.
     That was another thing Narain couldn’t write home about. Jameson took great relish in targeting Blythe, especially when Narain was around to watch. Blythe had driven a lorry in London before the war, and possessed not a drop of military blood in his lineage. Despite this, he tried his best to measure up to the likes of Jameson, whose own family had long military careers and who was himself hoping to go much further than Captain in his own career. Narain first truly noticed this sadism one afternoon when Jameson ordered Blythe to fix the barbed wire along twenty yards of the trench. Blythe, the good soldier, saluted, but Narain could see his face blanch at the prospect of carrying out the duty. He was particularly disturbed by the top of the trench, which perhaps a soldier should not be since one day, he might be called upon to go over the top. Narain could see no reason why Blythe had to be the one to perform the duty, however, so he offered to do to it for Blythe, who smiled gratefully. “Are you sure? I don’t mind, really.”
     Narain could see that he did, and smiled, nodding. “It would probably be good for me to do.”
     Leaning in confidentially, Blythe said, “Well, actually, I’m glad you’re willing. Something about up top. Gives me the willies. Don’t know what it is.”
    “Not to worry.”
     Narain performed the duty and all was fine, until Jameson found out. He roared for Blythe and swiped at him when the soldier came to him.“Did I or did I not, tell you to attend to that barbed wire?” he demanded. 
     Narain stepped up, saying, “Sir, was the work not satisfactory?”
     “No it wasn’t, Private, because I asked Blythe here to do it, not you.
     “But I asked to do it sir.”
     “That’s a damned lie and you know it.” Blythe said nothing, simply stood at attention, but with the posture of a whipped dog as Jameson continued, “You’re covering for Blythe, because Blythe is too lazy or yellow to carry out the order given to him.”
     “That’s not true,” Narain said, ready to step forward, but held back by
      Vivek who told him in Hindi to restrain himself.
     “That’s right, jabber on little monkey, and keep your friend in check.” He turned again to Blythe and walked around him as best he could in the tight trench. “What you are going to do Blythe, is carry out my order. And if that means tearing it down and starting from scratch, then so be it.”
    “Would that not be a waste of time, sir?” Narain sneered, holding his fury.
     Jameson squinted his eyes at Narain, walking toward him. “Those who are familiar with the military,” he began, leaning into Narain’s face, “would know that an attitude such as yours can get you in a lot of hot water. So, I suggest you follow your friend’s lead and keep quiet.”
     Narain did so, knowing that anything else he said would be pointless. Blythe glanced at him with a reassuring smile that only made him feel guiltier. It was wasteful, this attitude of Jameson’s, and it proved that he wasn’t above such pettiness to feel powerful, the consequences be damned.
     After that, the captain showed his sadism in little slights aimed at Blythe and some of the other Indian soldiers. He never went directly after Narain, though, perhaps realizing it would affect him more to see the misery of others. Jameson showed the extremes to which he was willing to take his feud, the night Blythe was left on guard duty and woke the trench up with gunfire and screaming. The moon was nearly full, but even with that light, the trench and beyond it was dark. One could peer into this dark and see all manner of shapes and shadows, never knowing which were real and which a trick of the eyes. It was not unusual for vermin or even the occasional wolf to investigate the top of the trench. Blythe’s commotion had sent everyone out to see what was happening and they found him waving his gun around the top of the trench, his face white and eyes wide. Some of the soldiers looked on, irritated, some shook their head sadly.
     “Blythe, you fool!” Jameson bellowed, stepping forward. As he did so, he made sure to shove Narain aside. “What are you up to?”
     Standing next to Narain, Vivek commented quietly, “Here he goes again. I wouldn’t want to be in Blythe’s shoes.”
    “They were everywhere, sir,” Blythe said, not bothering to salute, still in a crouched and ready stance.
    “Who were everywhere, old boy, Germans?” Danforth said, still as casual as ever.
     Blythe seemed surprised by the question. “I don’t...I don’t know.”
     Narain could tell by the way he shivered and the quiver in his voice, that this was more than simply seeing a shadow. More than likely, Blythe’s shell shock was getting the better of him. Yet, something frightened him terribly, whether or not it was in his mind. Carefully, he walked toward him, ignoring Jameson’s irritated glares. To his credit, the captain remained quiet.
     “What is it exactly you saw?” Narain said, slowly taking the gun from Blythe’s hands.
Relaxing only slightly, the man said, “I don’t know.”
     “Were you sleeping, man?” Jameson demanded.
     Narain glared at him, but Blythe said, “No, I swear. I swear. I was keeping an eye peeled. Looking around. It’s dark up there. I heard something, like dirt shifting or something and I looked up...”
     “And saw...” Narain coaxed.
     “Figures.” He closed his eyes, trying to envision them. “They were big. Grey, almost sheer white. Ghostly.” Jameson sighed, but Blythe continued, “When I turned at the first noise, there was one on the trench staring down at me. Then I looked around and there they were, about seven or so, leaning on the trench looking down. The barbed wire didn’t even bother them.”
     “Tell me, Blythe,” Narain said, “Did you see them as well as you see Bolton or McConnel now?”
     “Yeah, more than, like.”
     Narain frowned. Unless Blythe’s eyesight was superior to his, in the darkened trench lit by a half moon, it was unlikely he saw these figures very clearly. If he saw them at all.
     “This is ridiculous!” Jameson spat. “You were asleep and woke up from a dream.”
     “A nightmare, more like,” someone commented from the back.
     “I didn’t. I wasn’t.”
     “Could you have been drinking, old fellow?” Danforth suggested.
     “Is that so? Were you drinking?” Jameson demanded stepping toward him.
     “No. None of us has had anything, since we copped that flask last month. I saw figures up on the trench. They were horrible. And believe me, they were looking to come down here and do us no end of harm.”
     Clenching and unclenching his fists, Jameson insisted, “You were sleeping on duty, very likely drunk, and you put us all in danger.” He was growing calm, and that was never a good sign. “Such actions must be punished. Therefore, since you are so well rested, you won’t need any rations tomorrow. You can give your rations for the next two days to Private Khan here.”
     Narain whipped his head around to face him.        “What?”
    “Private Khan must be particularly hungry from all the exertion he expends in defending you. So he may have your rations.”
     As it were, the rations were small, supplies being tight at the moment. The men were already feeling the pinch. And Blythe was not in the best of health to begin with. Narain wanted to lunge at Jameson and hold his face in the mud until he blacked out. A vicious response he would never have had, even against his worst enemies, before sailing to this shattered country. But, the warning look Vivek gave him kept him still. Instead, he simply said, “No. I don’t want them.”
     “What!” Jameson snapped, yet smiled, almost as if that was the statement he was hoping for.
     Beginning to shiver himself, Narain said, “I don’t know what he saw, but I believe he saw something. It could have been wolves or wild dogs. Or it could have been a pack of Germans who managed to sneak across “no man’s land” and who were ready to pounce, were it not for this man’s firing. But, whether what he saw was real or his imagination, I will not be a party to this.”
     Narain was going to leave the scene when Jameson ordered, “Stand at attention, Private.” When he was ignored, Jameson reached out to grab his shoulder and Narain whirled around, staring at him. Taken aback, Jameson pointed and walked around him excitedly saying, “You’re all witnesses. He was going to strike a superior officer.”
     Vivek stepped forward, but Narain looked at him and shook his head. The soldiers were grudgingly silent. Rolling his eyes, Danforth resigned himself, sitting on a nearby plank to wait out the inevitable.
    “An army,” Jameson began, his eyes riveted to Narain, “a proper army, functions on one thing: Discipline. The moment crass insubordination is tolerated, it all crumbles apart. There was a time, Private Khan, when a soldier could be shot for turning on his superior. But we must take into consideration the fact that the British war effort needs everybody they can get—the only reason your rabble was allowed to join. But insubordination cannot be tolerated.”
     Walking over to Danforth, he held out his hand and sighing, Danforth handed him what he expected. In the dark, it was difficult to see and for a moment, Narain worried that the crazed captain might intend to shoot him anyway. Nodding to two soldiers loyal to him, Jameson stalked closer as the soldiers grabbed Narain forcing him against the wall of the trench.
     “Are you mad?” Vivek gasped, but backed off when Jameson stared at him. It was an evil stare, revealing that at that moment pain was his only purpose.
     The other soldiers looking on grumbled in confusion, but were silent when Narain said, “Quiet.”
     This did not sit at all well with Jameson, who loosened his hold on the belt he held and allowed it to extend down so that the buckle was on the giving end. Without a warning, he lashed out, the belt and buckle slamming into Narain’s shoulder blade, biting through his uniform shirt. He cried out, the pain slicing into him and he braced for the next blow. Jameson whipped again and again, Narain’s fingers digging into the moist dirt of the trench wall as he tried to make as little noise as possible. His knees buckled but the soldiers flanking him held him firmly in place.
     “I assure you, I don’t enjoy this,” Jameson said insincerely, “but an example must be made.” He lashed out again, the belt slamming across the left side of Narain’s back. “There are choices we must all make. Private Khan could have chosen to allow me to punish Private Blythe, as was fitting, but he chose instead to speak out of turn. Choices have consequences. These are the consequences.”
     He let loose with a volley of several more whips that cut or left welts all over Narain’s bruised back. Gritting his teeth, Narain’s muscles contracted with each hit. After the tenth, he was allowed to fall into the muck, moaning softly.
     “Now, were we in the Navy,” Jameson lectured, rolling up the belt, “That would have been a proper whip and at least thirty more lashes.”
     “Bully for the navy,” Danforth said, a note of tired disgust in his voice, as he methodically lit his pipe.
     Narain turned his head and looked at Blythe, cringing at the look of guilt that had spread across the young private's face. For Narain, that was a pain almost as sharp as the fire on his back and he was certain that was exactly what Jameson had planned. Reginald Jameson was an opportunist, who saw a chance to take two people down, and he did so, quite efficiently.
     “As for the aforementioned rations,” he said, nodding at the two soldiers who had held Narain,“Privates Caldwell and Scott can have both Blythe and Khan’s for the next three days. And anyone caught offering their rations to Privates Blythe or Khan will feel the buckle of this belt, as well.” He glared at Danforth who rose slowly, and then the two started toward their quarters. Turning, he glowered at the soldiers. “I’ll brook no further dissent, be assured of that.”
    Once the two had left, Vivek hurried over to where Narain was stubbornly trying to pick himself up out of the mud. Every movement brought fresh pain to deep cuts and bruises and part of him wanted to just be still in the mud until the pain went away.
     Taking hold of his arm carefully, Vivek and a British solider helped him to his feet. Assessing the injuries on Narain’s bloodied back, Vivek hissed,“What sort of animal is this captain?” Then he chided, “Narain, why do you always take that man’s bait?” before raising a hand. “I know, I know. You hate bullies.”
     It was the answer he always gave Vivek after a run in with Jameson. By this time it had become a test of wills between the two and Narain had resigned himself to the possibility that for the duration of the war, Jameson would do everything he could to break him and Narain would do everything he could to keep from breaking.
     The climax came weeks later when it was not Narain, but Blythe who finally broke. Narain, perhaps, could have predicted it, but he hoped against hope that Blythe would be able to hold on. The damned stalemate between the sides was lasting forever and there were times when he wondered if the war would ever end; or if rather, it would go on and on, the gaining of ground, the losing of ground, the shelling back and forth, the earth shaking under each bombardment.
     It was on a Thursday afternoon that they received the call they’d all been dreading, that at last let loose the insanity of the situation. Jameson called his unit to assembly and they found him looking a little more ashen, and not quite as cocky as he normally looked. His tone was still arrogant and disdainful.
     “As you all know there has been a rumor that we are scheduled for a push. Well, the rumor is true. It will be a raid on the German trenches. We are scheduled to go over the top in a matter of moments.”
     Jaws dropped as the men of the unit gasped collectively. Over the top. Into that bitter acreage that so many had tried and failed to cross. It had been stalemate for years between the two sides, because neither side could figure out a way to send their troops through that hellish territory, without them being mowed down by enemy fire. The push had been a possibility from the first day in the trenches, but it seemed almost sacrilegious to hear it spoken of so bluntly, on a day when the sun was actually shining down on them and the air was unsullied by the sound of German shells.
     Still stunned, Vivek nonetheless shrugged saying,“Well, I will be safe from my intended. At least until her death.”
    “So,” Jameson announced after the shock had settled, “you’ll need to check your weapons and supplies. Make sure your rifle is in good working order. There will be three blows of the whistle.” He gave a soft toot on his. “The first will be a warning to make ready. The second will be a call to assume formation. And the third will be the final order.” After a pause, he said, “And remember, we are fighting for a glorious cause. If all goes well we’ll be…” the usual saying was that they’d be dining on sausages in the Kaiser’s palace by Christmas. But Jameson’s tone illustrated that even he was unable to call up that much unrealistic jingoism. Instead a bit quieter, he finished, “Well, with luck we’ll be home.” He looked around. “Or at least far away from here. Dismissed.”
     The first whistle warning was heard and Jameson tooted his loudly, sending it on to the next unit who would do the same along the trench.
A chill went through Narain. A part of him felt relief, for he knew one way or another he would be free from that place. It was how he would arrive back on the soil of India that worried him. He looked down at the picture of Ujaali he had taken from his wallet. How will they tell her that her brother is not coming home, he thought.
      “Narain,” Vivek patted his back. “Let’s go. There’s not much time.”
     Nodding, Narain followed him and they readied their gear. When the unit had congregated again, many of the soldiers joked about “old times” while they waited for the second whistle. Danforth looked a bit green, which seemed strange for a man whose temperament was cool even in the worst times. As they exited their quarters, he followed silently behind Jameson, who seemed to review his soldiers with a calculating eye as if already deciding who was likely to make it back.
     As if knowing a British charge was imminent, the Germans started their cannons again, to which the Allies readily replied with their own salvoes.
    “Captain Jameson, sir,” one of the soldiers called out down the trench. “I think there’s something wrong with Blythe.”
     Narain’s eyes widened as he saw a malevolent grin cross Jameson’s face. A last bit of torture, before the captain left his kingdom. He hurried after, despite Vivek’s warning, and saw Blythe huddled in an indentation of the trench that he had seemingly dug by himself, if his scraped and filthy hands were any indication. He held his arms over his head, murmuring into the dirt and Narain was sure that the shell shock had finally taken hold.
     Jameson saw only a soldier goldbricking. “Blythe, what the deuce are you doing?” he barked, kicking at the man’s leg. “Where’s your gun? We’re going over to visit Jerry in a few moments.” He looked over at Danforth chuckling, but there was no reaction from the other man, not even his usual half-hearted approach. He just watched the scene, almost detached.
     “I can’t, sir, I can’t. I want to go home.” Blythe murmured, pitifully.
    “Nonsense! This is not a request. This is an order.”
    “I can’t face them. The ghostly things are out there, everywhere.”
    “They’re called Germans, Blythe and it’s our job to rid this fair country of them.”
     Narain recognized the false bravado in Jameson’s voice and it was probably the captain’s own fear that was leading him to taunt Blythe, who had obviously, finally, suffered a breakdown.
    “Leave him be, Reg,” Narain said. He had long since stopped giving Jameson the respect of calling him by his rank. At first, it was just in references during conversation with the other soldiers. Eventually it was to his face. And oddly, Jameson did not deny him the privilege. “Can’t you see he’s ill?”
    “He’s faking, Khan,” Jameson insisted. “He doesn’t want to go.” He kicked Blythe again.“Well guess what, Sonny Jim, none of us do. But that’s our fate now, isn’t it? So, get on your feet, get your gun and queue up for that whistle.”
   “No, I don’t want to go over the top,” Blythe whispered and looked helplessly over at Narain. “I’m useless. They’re out there waiting for all of us.”
    Narain stepped closer. The trench, already tense, was electrified at that point. Deciding play time was over, Jameson scowled and pulled out his service revolver.
    “Blythe, this is not a summer holiday,” he snarled, his arm ram rod straight as he pointed the gun at the tormented man. “Get on your feet right now.”
    “Reg, what the devil are you thinking?”
   “I am authorized by the British Army to shoot any man for cowardice,” he looked around. “Any man who refuses to go over that trench wall. Blythe, you have until the count of five.”
   “Lieutenant Danforth, stop him,” Narain pleaded and some of the other soldiers audibly bristled at the captain’s action.
    Danforth said nothing.
    Head lowered, Danforth merely walked over to a wooden plank and sat down wearily, staring at his rifle.
    Narain looked around helplessly. Jameson would do this, he had no doubt. But while the seriousness in Jameson’s voice brought Blythe out of his mania somewhat, he couldn’t find his legs to stand. Instead, the lorry driver from London looked up at the British gun being aimed at his head.
    Narain lunged at Jameson pushing the gun out of range of its target. Stunned, Jameson recovered quickly and brought the butt of the gun down toward Narain’s skull. Narain was able to deflect it enough so that it only landed a glancing blow and together the combatants fell into the dirt. Concentrating on keeping the gun barrel away from himself Narain was unable to untangle himself from his opponent and soon he found himself pinned underneath as Jameson held the gun to his head. He stared up into the cold, blue eyes, noting the enjoyment that danced within them. Where once the soldiers would have kept quiet during one of these stand-offs, their cannon fodder status now left them uninhibited and they shouted and jeered until the gun was pressed against Narain’s temple. Then, silence flowed through the trench.
     Showing his teeth, Jameson hissed, “I have enough bullets for both you and Blythe and perhaps a few for your monkey friends, eh what?”
    Before he could cock the gun, however, a rifle butt smashed against his back and he fell off Narain, dazed. Blythe stood above them, face still deathly pale and tortured, but cognizant. He kicked Jameson further away and reached out to help Narain up. Relieved, Vivek joined them.
    “One good thing about certain death,” Vivek told Blythe, “you can taste a bit of revenge and you won’t be around to answer for it.”
     Narain smiled weakly studying Blythe. “Are you with us, Fred?”
    Blythe blinked at him. “I think that’s the first time anyone has used my Christian name in this whole bloody war. I’d forgotten what it sounded like. My name’s not Private Blythe.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose with his sleeve. “It’s plain old Fred Blythe.”
    At that moment, the second warning whistle sounded and to their horror, a rifle shot exploded. Ears ringing, they looked toward the sound of the shot and grimaced as they saw Danforth’s lifeless body sprawled on the plank, the back of his head blown open, the barrel of the gun still lodged in his mouth.
    “I don’t want to go,” Blythe said as the others lined up near the ladder.
    Jameson moaned, waking up and Narain spared him only a moment’s notice. Instead he looked at Vivek, whose eyes were misty, his face solemn for the first time in their friendship. “Jameson’s right,” Vivek said, wiping his eyes and straightening up. “We’ll be having sauerkraut by tomorrow tea time.”
     Hugging him tightly, Narain released him and turned his eyes to Blythe. “You are Fred Blythe, who may very likely be shot for cowardice if he stays behind. He glanced up then back at Blythe.“You may have a better chance up there.”
     Vivek patted Blythe’s shoulder. “And if not, at least you’ll be in good company.” He looked toward Jameson who was getting to his feet. “Better than the vermin in here.”
     Still visibly shaken, Blythe nodded, picked up his rifle, and walked with Narain and Vivek toward a ladder. As if out of respect for a new leader, soldiers by the ladder stepped back to allow Narain to be the first up. Not to be the first to fall but to be the one to lead them.
    And then, the third whistle blew.